The greasy politics of aid

Friday August 24 2012

A scene from Cooking Oil. Photo/Morgan Mbabazi

Cooking Oil, which depicts the ugly side of foreign aid and its effects on the African continent, has concluded in Kampala. It is scheduled for a tour of the US in May next year.  

The play uses music, dance and storytelling techniques to show how a village seeks to understand the dilemma of a teenage girl — Maria — caught up in the misuse of foreign aid.

Written in 2008 by the award-winning Ugandan playwright Deborah Asiimwe, the play was staged at the In Movement Performance Space in Kampala on August 14 - 15.

In Cooking Oil, Maria is selling cooking oil clearly labelled “Not For Sale,” in the territory of a prominent politician, Silver, and a confrontation ensues.

The cooking oil is aid intended for a starving village.  

Maria needs the money to complete her education while Silver wants it to campaign for office in the upcoming elections.  


Maria confronts Ndeeba, an employee of Mzazi Relief Aid: “I know who you are! The new woman working for Mzazi Relief Aid. The only woman who rides a motorbike in this village! The one telling people not to buy my cooking oil…” 

Maria insists she has no business talking to Ndeeba unless she buys her cooking oil. “Would you like to buy some?” she asks.   

But Ndeeba retorts: “You do not have to make corrupt choices to achieve your dreams.” 

Maria remains adamant: “This business has been going on for a while. The Mzungu who was here in your position, didn’t mind us really. He was friends with my father (Bataka), Kafuko, Silver and many other villagers. Why do you care? Why don’t you let us just be?”   

Ndeeba answers: “Because I think your father, Kafuko and Silver are taking things that do not rightfully belong to them.”

Neeza Bataka (Maria’s mother) chips in: “I don’t care whether you are against our cooking oil business. All I know is that there have been improvements in this home! I mean compared with the rest of the villagers! Look at this, cassava! And a whole gallon of cooking oil. All thanks to Hon Silver who gave my husband a deal.”

Right or wrong 

The play questions whether there are circumstances when it is necessary for one to take what does not belong to them. Should there be consequences for that? Who is to blame? Is it possible to judge difficult decisions one is not forced to make? 

In some African countries where foreign aid flows without regulations, no one is innocent; the leaders, the led and the donors are all drink from the corruption cup, says Asiimwe. 

“Does Africa need aid? Asiimwe asks, adding: “That is the question the play is trying to pose. Given that in the past 60 years it is estimated that Africa has received aid worth over $1 trillion and the lives of the Africans and the economies haven’t improved at all.”

Asiimwe adds:  “We should also note that development-related aid isn’t free. So at the end of the day we get all this aid and have to pay it back. And I believe that most times aid fuels corruption and bad governance because for the most part it is not regulated.”  

The play, which premiered at the National Theatre in Kampala in October 2010 and is directed by Emily Mendelsohn, was presented by a Ugandan, Rwandan and American collaborative team, in partnership with In Movement and the Goethe-Zentrum Kampala.  

It featured Kaya Kagimu Mukasa (Neeza), Kagasuru Allen (Ndeeba), Tonny Muwangala (Hon. Dr. Sir Silver Bibala), Mazimpaka Jones Kennedy (Bataka), Esther Tebandeke Lutaaya (Maria Bataka), Sophie Nzayisenga on enanga and ensemble, and Sam Kamanzi on guitar and ensemble.